Shave and a haircut
We awoke at dawn now in Fujian province and watched the sun rise from the bus. We arrived in Anxi at 8 am and Mr Wong picked us up. Anxi is beautiful at dawn, and the weather has been beyond incredible. Warm and bright, this is the weather farmers pray for. Tea buyers too. We showered and ate and headed straight up the tea mountain to see how the harvest was progressing.
The harvest is bountiful this year and is already in progress. Ben Shan is being picked, since it's an early harvest. Ben Shan is bred to be an early budding Ti Kuan Yin tea that gives great high fragrance and little else. It is first to market and while first harvests can command high prices because they're first, Other than being first, Ben Shan is usually regarded as a cheap tea. Its high fragrance is that sweet pineapple fresh grass taste that’s so popular. But it’s made by “cheating” during the drying process: air conditioners are used to remove the moisture quickly and artificially cool the tea while drying. I prefer Golden Heart and Red Heart varietals. They are higher grown, picked later in the harvest and more flavorful and more traditional.
See the difference between growing areas? High altitude or "High Mountain" vs low altitude (Ben Shan is generally lower grown):
Ting Heung (high fragrance) Ben Shan (early pick) oolong is machine picked instead of hand picked.
Ting Heung Ben Shan oolong is air condition dried. This means it’s a pleasant fragrance for sure, but it’s really robbing the drinker of the full spectrum tea is capable of, and should give. It has no lingering taste, no throat feel, no roastyness and no body. You can actually roast the tea after this step in an attempt to bring a deeper taste to the leaves, but it results in a gentle toasty taste that does not linger and a soft sour milk taste in the center of your tongue that is also short lasting.
After the leaves are picked, they are spread out to wither. This can take hours or an afternoon. To give you an idea of how hot and perfect this harvest is, it took exactly three minutes to dry this tea before it was ready for the next process step.
The next step is that the leaves are put in a large tumble dryer at 250 degrees Celsius for 2 minutes. This stops the oxidation process and keeps the leaves from oxidizing to a red leaf color and stabilizes cells of the leaf. It's the first of many cooking processes the tea will go through and is called the Kill Green step. The resulting tea is called raw tea, or "Mao cha".
We tasted these leaves with the farmer as they were being processed.
This is a unique and rare opportunity. It's almost never possible to taste leaves as they are being made, either farmers are too busy to accommodate you --and attempting to schedule this is impossible; the harvest has it's own schedule and everyone bends to it, no exceptions. This is an important part of processing, much like sampling wine during the fermentation steps to make sure the product is progressing properly.
This year the farmers were happy, you could feel it in the air. There is a miraculous ease to this harvest that I have never seen before. And there is joy in knowing that the sun is shining and there will be tea and plenty of it.